A Medieval Celestial Woodcut

excerpts taken by Elaine F. Bailey at The Ubiquitorium ©

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The Point

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What is the point of the Medieval illustration used at The UBIQUITORIUM © ;? To us, this colorized woodcut depicts a time when the knowledge of the cosmos was limited to the Medieval knowledge base and imagination. However, it represents the "Quest of Discovery and Exploration: the challenge of going boldly where no one has gone before".
The "Quest for Knowledge" that has forever been the need of mankind is what separates us from the rest of the living here on Earth. We are those who "Reflect and Ponder"our existance and all that is.

The Question

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Consider the question: "How do I know that I have received God's grace?"

The Answer

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The answer is: If you know with certainty that God exists, then you have received it;if not, not.

The Origins of the Woodcut

by Kerry Magruder at HyperNote©
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Where did this woodcut come from?

There may be a twist to the story of the woodcut after all. Its provenance is notoriously difficult to track down. In the illlustrated edition of J. D. Bernal's 4-volume survey of the history of science, The Emergence of Science, the woodcut is vaguely attributed to the sixteenth century, along with the erroneous caption:
In medieval times there was a return to the concept of a flat Earth and a dogmatism about the crystalline celestial spheres, here epitomized in a woodcut showing the machinery responsible for their motion discovered by an inquirer who has broken through the outer sphere of fixed stars.
Clearly the illustrator has not grasped the thought experiment in medieval physics that the woodcut represents. The illustration credits at the end of the book offer no traceable source for the woodcut.

A colorized version of the woodcut was prepared for the cover of Daniel Boorstin's bestseller, The Discoverers. Although the jacket attributes the picture to an "early 16th century woodcut," it cites only the Bettmann Archive for its source. Boorstin himself does not discuss the picture, but does perpetuate the erroneous myth about medieval belief in a flat Earth.

A different colorized version, courtesy of Science Graphics in Tucson, AZ, is included in a recent NASA publication called Exobiology in Earth Orbit. It appears with the following interesting caption:

A famous early 20th century engraving (1911) erroneously thought to be a 17th century woodcut of a Medieval astronomer passing through the sphere of the stars to see the mechanisms of the Ptolemaic universe beyond.
Now the theme of this image is not so much a flat earth as a common quest of discovery and exploration: the challenge of going boldly where no one has gone before. And the possibility of an extracosmic void, and what would happen if you could go there, was indeed a major topic of debate among medieval cosmologists.

The NASA attribution of the engraving to the twentieth century raises the intriguing possibility that the original woodcut may not be authentic after all. Yet this caption also gives no specific source. How did they know that it originated in 1911, without specifying a source? Did they have one and not tell us? But how did they know it was the first?

But the attribution to an unspecified 1911 source is demonstrably false, for it appears as a black and white woodcut in Camille Flammarion, L'Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), p. 163. Flammarion's picture is surrounded by a decorative border, which does not appear to be extrinsic to the woodcut but an original part of it. This border, a feature which suggests the non-medieval origin of the picture, has been cropped out in the reprints noted above. The woodcut is unsigned, like many but not all of the other illustrations in Flammarion's works. Its caption reads: "Un missionnaire du moyen âge raconte qu'il avait trouvé le point où le ciel et la Terre se touchent..." This appears to be a summary of the accompanying text, in which Flammarion introduces, with extremely colorful prose, the question: "What, then, is this blue [sky], which certainly does exist, and which veils from us the stars during the day?" The complete paragraph just prior to this question is:

Que le ciel soit pur ou couvert, il se présente toujours à nos yeux sous l'aspect d'une voùte surbaissée. Loin d'offrir la forme d'une circonfé rence, il paraît étendu, aplati au-dessus de nos têtes, et semble se prolonger insensiblement en descendant peu à peu jusqu'à l'horizon. Les anciens avaient pris cette voûte bleue au sérieux. Mais, comme le dit Voltaire, c'était aussi intelligent que si un ver à soie prenait sa coque pour les limites de l'univers. Les astronomes grecs la représentaient comme formée d'une substance cristalline solide, et jusqu'à Copernic un grand nombre d'astronomes l'ont considérée comme aussi matérielle que du verre fondu et durci. Les poètes latins placèrent sur cette voùte, au-dessus des planètes et des étoiles fixes, les divinités de l'Olympe et l'élégante cour mythologique. Avant de savoir que la Terre est dans le ciel et que le ciel est partout, les théologiens avaient install é dans l'empyrée la Trinité, le corps glorifi é de Jesus, celui de la vierge Marie, les hiéarchies angéliques, les saints et toute la milice cé leste... Un naïf missionnaire du moyen âge raconte même que, dans un de ses voyages à la recherche du Paradis terrestre, il atteignit l'horizon où le ciel et la Terre se touchent, et qu'il trouva un certain point où ils n'étaient pas soudés, où il passa en pliant les é paules sous le couvercle des cieux.... Or cette belle voûte n'existe pas! Déjà je me suis é lev é en ballon plus haut que l'Olympe grec, sans être jamais parvenu à toucher cette tente qui fuit à mesure qu'on la poursuit, comme les pommes de Tantale.
In English:
Whether the sky be clear or cloudy, it always seems to us to have the shape of an elliptic arch; far from having the form of a circular arch, it always seems flattened and depressed above our heads, and gradually to become farther removed toward the horizon. Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silk-worm took his web for the limits of the universe. The Greek astronomers represented it as formed of a solid crystal substance; and so recently as Copernicus, a large number of astronomers thought it was as solid as plate-glass. The Latin poets placed the divinities of Olympus and the stately mythological court upon this vault, above the planets and the fixed stars. Previous to the knowledge that the Earth was moving in space, and that space is everywhere, theologians had installed the Trinity in the empyrean, the angelic hierarchy, the saints, and all the heavenly host.... A missionary of the Middle Ages even tells us that, in one of his voyages in search of the terrestrial paradise, he reached the horizon where the earth and the heavens met, and that he discovered a certain point where they were not joined together, and where, by stooping, he passed under the roof of the heavens.... And yet this vault has, in fact, no real existence! I have myself risen higher in a balloon than the Greek Olympus was supposed to be situated, without being able to reach this limit, which, of course, recedes in proportion as one travels in pursuit of it‹like the apples of Tantalus.
Thus Flammarion uses the woodcut to propagandize for the flat earth myth, drawing on an anecdote that so far I have been able to trace only as far back as Voltaire. An astronomer at the Paris observatory has indicated that Flammarion's diaries acknowledge that he had the woodcut made, so the trail seems to end here.

James Glaisher, of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, edited a translation of the 1872 edition of L'Atmosphère into English in 1873, condensing Flammarion's excessive prose into a volume less than half as many pages long as the 824 page original. Glaisher explained that Flammarion, like other popular French writers, displayed "a tendency to imaginative" writing inconsistent with "the precision and accuracy that ought to be characteristic of scientific information, even when expressed in language free from technicalities." He continued:

There is a good deal of this exalted kind of composition in M. Flammarion's book, which--even in the French not very agreeable to an English reader--becomes, when translated, intolerable. I have, therefore, omitted these rhapsodies very freely, though traces enough of them will be found here and there to betray the French origin of the work.
"The task of editing has not been a light one," Glaisher added, citing the obligation to correct various factual errors. Interestingly, although the New York edition includes 10 color plates and 86 woodcuts, it does not contain the flat-earth representation.

A recent mathematical book includes the woodcut along with the border, however, and echoes the quest theme, its caption reading: "The astronomer reaches for truth. He is depicted as breaking through the shell of appearances to arrive at an understanding of the fundamental mechanism that lies behind appearances."

They credit Flammarion, but how they came up with the quest theme from Flammarion is hard to fathom, given Flammarion's use of it in the service of the flat-earth myth. Whether as a metaphor of the flat-earth, cosmological thought experiments, or the human quest, this woodcut has proven to be an extremely durable piece of visual rhetoric.

The Reason we choose this Woodcut?

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We have chosen this woodcut because it exemplifies our interest in the history of science and in the perpetuation of historical myths. It exemplifies the long tradition of thought-experiments, so important to science and to creative writing. And from a medieval perspective, it points to the notion of creatures and the cosmos as symbols or exemplars of ideas in the mind of God.

Woodcut Gallery

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[FLAMMARION, Woodcut Original]

[Daniel Boorstin The Discoverers]

[BioChemistry U of Minn]


[Woodcut 4]


[OBU Planetarium]


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A Place to Reflect and Ponder...

"Elaine Fasoli Bailey"
Screemin' Screens Company © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999

Last Edited 20 MAY 99